15 June 2006


Not too far south, mind you, but enough that I notice the difference. As the header up there in the corner should say, this blog is now based in Baltimore. No, it's not a permanent move, or at least I'll be very surprised if it is, but the next four days will see me malingering, er, lingering, I meant, near the shores of Chesapeake Bay. At least I think that's what that large body of water out there is called. I could be mistaken; normally I'm quite keen on geography and make a point of looking up maps and historical facts about any new city I'm visiting, but between having watched a whole host of John Waters movies and met two teenyboppers from Baltimore back in 1967, I must have assumed I already knew all I needed to know about the place.

As is often the case when I assume anything, I was wrong, but hopefully the coming few days will result in some enlightenment. I had a walk of a little over a mile from the train station down to where I'm staying and found the city surprisingly attractive. I don't know what I was expecting - probably some John Waters-type squalor, which I'm still assuming is out there somewhere - but there were some beautiful and stately old buildings that looked just different enough from the buildings farther north for me to know I was somewhere new.

The one thing that was missing, as is the case with most American cities these days, was the people. Maybe it's just because I'm used to New York and London, but it's eerie to walk down a perfectly pleasant, human-scaled street and see an average of one pedestrian per block while thousands of cars stream past in what looks like a desperate attempt to flee the city before nightfall. Perhaps they know something I don't; it's dark now, and I'm wondering if I dare set foot outdoors and run the risk of encountering hordes of flesh-eating zombies or whatever it is that seems to have frightened everybody else off.

Getting here was a breeze. American railroads - aka Amtrak - have such a terrible reputation, and based on past experience, not undeservedly, but the train down from New York compared favorably with many English intercity trains, and yes, I know that's not saying much, but still... It left on time, arrived on time, gave me an opportunity to see some new places, or at least new perspectives on places I'd only driven through previously, like Philadelphia and Wilmington, Delaware (my reaction to the latter was much like that of Bette Davis in All About Eve when she memorably intoned, "What a dump," but then the train went around a bend and provided a view of the sun splashing off the glass facades of the international banking headquarters, a substantial improvement over the chemical plants and junkyards it had previously illuminated).

I sat in what was called a "Quiet Car" that actually was quiet. They have these on some English trains, too, but nobody takes any notice of it. On Amtrak, though, the conductor regularly patrolled the aisles should it become necessary to enforce the "library" (that's how he put it) type rules. But Americans must be better behaved. The one time a man's cell phone went off unexpectedly, he virtually ran out of the car, so ashamed was he of disrupting the sanctum-like silence. There were even curtains you could draw if you wanted to sleep, but I ended up so fascinated with the scenery that I never even unpacked the book I'd brought (Philip Roth's Zuckerman trilogy, having finished Updike's tetralogy the night before last). I would have had two seats to myself, but I couldn't bring myself to hog both of them the way some of my fellow passengers did, by sprawling out, leaving bags on the vacant seat, leaving the tray tables up on both seats with bunches of rubbish on them, etc. All tried and true tactics that I have employed to useful effect myself on English trains, even if I always did feel slightly guilty about it.

But I felt a bit more timid about being a bad neighbor or less than cooperative passenger on an American train, and that caused me to realize for the first time that in many ways I still like a bit of a foreigner here in the land of my birth. Not so much in New York, which often seems to have more in common with London than America, but even there, as soon as I get out of Manhattan, it begins to feel like an exotic land and I begin to feel like a tourist.

Which isn't all bad. I've always found it rewarding to try to view anyplace, even my home town, through the eyes of someone seeing it for the first time, or better yet, through the eyes of a child seeing it for the first time. I often used to walk around London conducting an imaginary tour for my 9 year old nephew, trying to figure out what things he would find amazing and wondering why, if that was the case, I no longer found them amazing myself. And often by the time I got through that process, I'd be amazed all over again myself.

Anyway, before I digress any further, if you're wondering what I'm doing here in Baltimore, there's a little mini-fest (except to those of us who are participating in it, in which case it's a very Big Fest) of punk rock and pop-punk bands being put on by the folks behind Insubordination Records. It promises to be an exciting and fun-filled weekend, but before you start packing your bags and making travel plans, it's been sold out for months and you probably wouldn't like most of the bands anyway. Stay tuned and I'll try to let you know how it all turns out.

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